They don’t need what you say they need

Hand_holding_a_red_fundraising_boxI’ve probably been guilty of the same. I’ll say that up front. But I’m tired of reading where ministries are raising money for what they say people in Cuba are asking for. No, they’re not asking for sewing machines. No, they’re not asking for solar-powered listening devices. No, they’re not asking for baptismal garments.

Of course, if you ask them if they could use those things or just about anything else, they’ll say yes. People who lack many basic goods will accept almost anything offered to them for free. But that’s not grounds for saying that they are asking for those things.

And this isn’t just Cuba. Cuba is merely the situation that I know best. It’s also a unique situation, with there not having been U.S. missionaries living there for over 50 years. I can speak to their situation. Others can describe what goes on in other places.

Here’s a thought: what if we asked people what they need? Asked them to prioritize the most important things? Maybe if we let them come up with the ideas, we’d be able to provide things they really need. Instead of the things we want to provide.

Modernity, order, and the church

Transforming Worldviews book coverUsing ideas from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews, we talked the last time I wrote about how modernity led the Western church to obsess about time and punctuality. Along the same lines, Western churches often emphasize cleanliness and order.

Hiebert observes about modernity in general:

Cleanliness in modernity is defined primarily in terms of high order: of keeping categories uniform. Flowers in the grass are weeds, earth on the sidewalk is dirt, and spoons in the fork bin are out of place. Categories must also be clearly bounded. Pictures, windows, and doors should have frames setting them off, cracks in the wall should be fixed or covered by moldings, and floors should be differentiated from walls by baseboards. Wherever categories meet, the boundary must be marked to keep the distinctions clear. (Kindle location 3392)

He mentions, as an example, how roads are clearly defined in societies influences by modernity. There is a clear demarcation as to what is road and what isn’t. In many societies, the road is part of the surrounding area; a path is a suggestion as to where to walk, not the only allowable walking space. (You see this tension in many developing nations, where lanes are clearly marked on roads, but those markings mean little to nothing to local drivers)

Hiebert then observes about the church:

In the church, too, cleanliness is of high value. Sanctuaries, dress, and the order of rituals must be clean and proper. We see this emphasis in the tension between relationships and cleanliness. If long-unseen friends appear at church, do we invite them to our home for lunch, although our house is dirty because we left in a hurry, or do we greet them and invite them to our house on another day, after we have had time to clean it? In many cases we do the next best thing, in terms of relationships: we invite them out to a restaurant dinner! (Kindle location 3396)

Where this becomes especially harmful is in missions situations. Missionaries see their way, modernity’s way, as the right way; it’s very difficult for them to give control to people not bound by the same notions of cleanliness and order. Hiebert says:

(Western missionaries) have tried to teach people to be on time; to construct straight walls; to paint without slopping on the window sills; to keep buildings clean; to plan for future activities; to keep accurate minutes and straight accounts; to stand in line; to maintain sharp borders on paths and roads; and to keep books, medicines, and other supplies in order on shelves. Their fear of chaos has often been a hindrance to turning work over to the nationals. They have been afraid that hospitals would become dirty, schools unorganized, churches disorderly, accounts irregular, and the order of the church chaotic if things are controlled by the local people. Moreover this distrust of the local people has undermined the missionaries’ credibility among them. (Kindle location 3414)

And these attitudes don’t go unnoticed by locals:

Christians in other lands are often confused by the Western obsession with order and Westerners’ lack of relational skills. Westerners rarely open their homes spontaneously to visitors. They are more interested in keeping possessions than in sharing them. They are often too busy doing things to take time just to sit and visit. For Christians in many non-Western societies, the central issue in Christianity is not right order but right relationships. The gospel to them is good news because it speaks of shalom—of a community in which harmonious relationships value human dignity, justice, love, peace, and concern for the lost and the marginalized. (Kindle location 3427)

All of this is very interesting to me because of how I’ve seen these things play out in me, in other missionaries, and in churches I’ve been around through the years. I marvel again at the obsession so many Christians my age have with resisting postmodernism while fully embracing the influence of modernity as if it were gospel.

Have you seen any of this?

Dualism and missions

Transforming Worldviews book coverLast time I noted some thoughts from Paul Hiebert’s Transforming Worldviews about the dualism that grew up in Western culture over the last few centuries, the separation between religious and secular life.

Hiebert also noted the effect this had on missions:

In missions this dualism has led to a division between “evangelism” and “social gospel,” reinforcing the dualism that led to the secularization of modern societies. For many people, evangelism concerns the super salvation of the soul, and the social gospel involves ministry to human physical needs, such as food, medicine, and education. Missionaries planted churches and built schools and hospitals. They saw their task as Christianizing and civilizing people. The two endeavors were often seen as separate tasks. (Kindle location 3164)

As Hiebert noted, when societies rejected Christianity but accepted the social aspects, modern missions became one of the world’s great secularizing forces. He also notes:

Modern dualism also led many missionaries to deny the reality of spirits, magic, witchcraft, divination, and evil eye, which were important in the everyday life of the people they served. Young Christians in these communities kept their beliefs in these this-worldly spiritual realities but hid them from the missionaries because the missionaries did not believe in such phenomena. The result was “split-level” Christianity in which young Christians were Christian in public, going to church and reciting the confessions on Sunday, but were traditional religionists in private, turning to magicians, diviners, and shamans during the week. (Kindle location 3173)

So what happened in many places was a superficial acceptance of Christianity, a wholesale acceptance of Western social structures, and an underlying continuance of traditional beliefs. In order to get the schools and hospitals, they were willing to perform Christian rituals, but their hearts remained unchanged.

By not changing underlying worldviews (including their own), missionaries failed to actually convert those they dealt with.

Obviously, Hiebert is painting with a broad stroke. Exceptions abound. But in far too many places, this is exactly what took place.


Message StonesI have a dream. I’m looking forward to the day when churches argue and fight about things that really matter. Okay, maybe I don’t really want the arguing and fighting part. Still, I’d love to see a large portion of our membership get passionate about things that happen outside of our church walls.

I long for the day when someone writing about feeding the hungry can generate as much attention as someone arguing about what women can and can’t do in the assembly. I’d love to see members competing to get more attention for their style of evangelism, rather than their style of music. Wouldn’t it be neat to hear someone say, “We liked that church, but they didn’t seem to be focused enough on missions, so we’re going elsewhere”?

I’d like churches to be measured not by the number of people in the pews on Sunday but the number of people on their knees on Monday. I’d love for faithfulness to be seen as growing to be more like Christ, not just attending church every time the doors are open. I dream of the day when we care less about who stands up front and more about who washes feet.

Yet, just as God told Elijah of the unknown thousands who weren’t worshipping Baal, I know that God has an army of people out there that aren’t writing blogs or speaking at lectureships or promoting the doctrine du jour. Those people are too busy going about their ministries, too busy serving, too busy changing this world to get bogged down in our silly squabbles. God bless them. May their tribe be increased.

Photo by Darren Hester on

No real good without the good news

idolOn Friday, I posted a link to Evil Spirits and Electricity Problems. In that article, missionary Amy Medina tells a story of political corruption in Tanzania. Medina points out that this case of corruption doesn’t just represent a personal failing on the part of a politician; it demonstrates the effects of an animistic worldview.

Here’s a quote:

In Africa, animism is the predominant worldview. Even among many who claim to be Christian or Muslim.

Animism is the belief system that the world is governed by capricious, irrational spirit beings. They are unpredictable and usually mean. There is no rhyme or reason to what they do. You cannot control them and there is very little point in trying.

Thus, many Africans believe:
We are poor and will always be poor.
Why try to change it?
There is nothing we can do.
We are trapped in poverty.

Those who are in power–the chiefs, the government officials, even many times the pastors–they are higher in the spiritual hierarchy. If you mess with them, you mess with the spirits. If you mess with them, you’re bringing a heck of a lot of trouble on yourself.

She then goes on to say something that needs to be heard, that needs to be repeated, that desperately needs to be understood as we think about missions:

This is why Africa does not need more government aid. This is why Africa does not simply need more wells or more shoes or more schools.

Until the underlying worldview is addressed, there will not be change in Africa. This is why Africa needs the gospel to penetrate its worldview.

Doing good doesn’t do longterm good unless it includes the gospel! Not the idea that all people need is some sort of “get out of hell free” card, but the idea that the good news of Jesus transforms lives, worldviews, and cultures. If we aren’t changing worldviews, we aren’t changing anything. We aren’t helping people, not really. We’re not doing lasting good.

Feed the hungry. House the homeless. Clothe the naked. But give them the good news they need to truly change their lives!

photo by Kevin Connors on